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Victorian Lesbian Cobblers August 26, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback


A week in which this blogger has had a thrilling time reading works on the history of lesbianism: some surprisingly good books out there. Anyway, one of the most fascinating facts about sexuality in western Europe and later European colonies is that way that there was one standard for male homosexuality and quite another for female homosexuality. Cue that delightful old chestnut that Queen Victoria saved Britain’s lesbians from a fate almost as bad as ‘morality’, legislation. Here’s Tom from the Guardian’s Notes and Queries page. What by the way should you call a myth/cobblers where more people enjoy telling you that it is a myth than actually tell it as a myth? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

I have heard that when Queen Victoria was given the law to approve making homosexuality of both sexes illegal, it was her opinion that such things would be a physical impossibility between women, so the law was never passed.

This story is well known in Britain but also apparently further afield. It clicks into several interesting cultural plug-holes. First, there is the widespread idea that Victoria was a prude with sub-normal intelligence: when she was a highly intelligent woman who showed surprising breadth of mind  with courage to match. Second, there is the notion that lesbianism did not exist as an idea: this is closer to the truth in that lesbianism was less widely understood, less widely discussed and less widely conceived by nineteenth-century western societies than male homosexuality  (another post another day).

Anyway, back to Vic. In 1885, after a famous journalistic campaign, Salisbury’s Tory government passed a The Criminal Bill Amendment Act. The main aim of this act was to prevent child prostitution and make prostitution more difficult generally. However, as the act was being discussed a Liberal MP, Henry Labouchere, introduced an amendment to the Amendment making it a crime for two men to indulge in ‘gross indecency’. British law has decided, in its wisdom, and this was probably Labouchere’s intention, that ‘gross indecency’ would be any homosexual act, not including sodomy (i.e. anal sex). Though as punishment for sodomy in 1885 was life imprisonment many homosexuals were prosecuted under the Labourchere amendment because juries were far more likely to convict.

The next bit is boring but as with all myths it is important to set out contrary evidence. This is from Hansard 6 August 1885: Hansard reports, for non islanders, all debates in the House of Commons and Lords.

Mr Labouchere said, his Amendment was as follows: After Clause 9, to insert the following clause. Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and, being convicted thereof, shall be liable, at the discretion of the Court, to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding one year with or without hard labour. That was his Amendment, and the meaning of it was that at present any person on whom an assault of the kind here dealt with was committed must be under the age of 13, and the object with which he had brought forward this clause was to make the law applicable to any person, whether under the age of 13 or over that age. He did not think it necessary to discuss the proposal at any length, as he understood Her Majesty’s Government were willing to accept it. He, therefore, left it for the House and the Government to deal with as might be thought best.

The House lapped it up and one year was changed to two. Note that because of some administrative confusion Labouchere was linked with a subsequent amendment concerning the seduction of girls, which he apparently did not write and where his support was more lukewarm. Is this the origin of the lesbian legend or some proto, proto version? In any case, the idea of elderly Victoria stamping her little foot and refusing to sign a law is nonsense for the simple reason that this law never existed: the Fortean Times also has some sensible words on the constitutional impossibility of this even had such a law gone through; who needs Bagehot when you have the heirs of Charles Fort!

The FT also writes that ‘The myth apparently started in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1977, to explain why a demonstration for lesbian equality centred on a statue of Vicky.’ But don’t you believe it. Roland Pearsall in his wordy The worm in the bud: the world of Victorian sexuality, seems to refer to the legend in 1969 (xiii). For Beach’s money this is a creation of late 1960s campuses whose inhabitants developed the fevered certainty that they were right about everything, and the conviction that this freed them and their teachers from checking facts. For a proto flower power chick to announce in a lecture that Queen Victoria had said that she had no idea what lesbianism was, would have been so cool, so ‘balls to the patriarchy’ and would probably have covered up the fact that most of the class (including very possibly the speaker) were not so sure either. Of course, even if this had been an underground bit of cobblers enjoyed by academics in the 1930s and 1940s it would never have got into print back then: you might as well write the history of Victorian dirty jokes as follow that one back to the cultural testes from out of which it was pumped. Sorry for that last unsettling image.